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Peace Fatigue: Israelis Watch Annapolis and Yawn

Israelis had a hard time getting excited about Annapolis. They'd seen it all before, been through too much and been let down too many times to work up much enthusiasm, writes PJM Tel Aviv editor Allison Kaplan Sommer.

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Allison Kaplan Sommer

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November 28, 2007 - 12:45 am

The Annapolis peace conference has managed to elicit a mood not normally associated with the Israeli public: indifference.

Unlike previous “peace extravaganzas” like Camp David, the Madrid Peace Conference, the various Oslo signings, average Israeli citizens haven’t been glued to their television sets and radios following their leaders’ movement and listening to the speeches and wondering how the dramatic events overseas will affect their lives. There’s no buzz.

Of all Israelis watching television during the afternoon’s live broadcasts of Annapolis, the total ratings of all of the channels which aired the events was the same as the audiences for the daily soaps. The viewership of the evening news reporting weren’t any higher than on an average night. Appropriate for what most of the audience considers a re-run – they’ve heard the speeches and promises of peace before.

The cynicism is so established that you can’t even get a good argument going about Annapolis on the street. Bring up the subject and you are in for a lot of shrugging and eye-rolling – and a rapid change of subject.

To make sure this wasn’t just happening in my own social circles, while going about my morning errands today, I decided to sound out Sagi, the owner of the corner store while I picked up my groceries. After the requisite shrug, eye-roll, and sigh, he confessed uncomfortably, “It’s not nice to say that you don’t care about what happens to the country. But we’re just tired. We’re tired of it all.”

Tired of what? Tired of peace process drama that doesn’t lead anywhere? He nods. “I mean, let’s face it. Really – how in the world can we make peace with half the Palestinians? It’s ridiculous. Abu Mazen is a joke. And Hamas knows that they can blow the whole process to high heaven with one terror attack.” Then, eager to escape the conversation, he quickly went back to stacking paper towels.

Sagi’s reaction is not one you’re going to see featured as a soundbite on the major networks, CNN or Fox News. Indifference, skepticism and cynicism doesn’t photograph very well or play well on television – they’d rather run the footage of the Palestinians passionately demonstrating against Annapolis. That’s far more exciting.

Israeli media coverage, obviously, is more reflective.

True, the highest-circulation newspaper in the land, Yediot Aharonot, dutifully ran a full-page picture of Bush, Olmert, and Abbas grasping hands on its cover and faithfully reported the news of the decision to negotiate to reach an agreement by the end of 2008 to an audience the journalists knew didn’t believe a word of it. Knowing this, it tempered the impact of the lead story with a commentary by Israel’s most respected pundit, Nachum Barnea right underneath.

The headline: “They Went Overboard” – “they” being the Americans. His bottom line – given the infinitesimal chances for success, the hoopla simply wasn’t justified.

During the ceremony, while the world press was watching Olmert’s speech, Barnea, who always has a sharp eye for telling detail, was watching the Saudi diplomats watch Olmert as he delivered his speech.

“All of the foreign ministers put on their headphones (for translation.) All of them, except for one, the Saudi minister, Saud Al-Faisel. His ears, underneath his red keffiyah, were left bare. And no, it wasn’t because he understood Hebrew. It was the Saudi method of demonstrating their relationship to the State of Israel. Even as the Israeli Prime Minister was greeting him and speaking of peace, they were refusing to listen. For a minute I thought I was wrong that maybe there was a technical problem. But then I saw his aide next to him – also leaving his ears demonstrably naked.”

Then, as Olmert’s speech ended, and the audience applauded. “The Saudi representative also brought his palms together in order to appear polite. Only someone who sat very close to him could see that the never touched. The little game that the Saudis were playing was just one contradiction – the least noticeable one – in a day full of contradictions.”

To Israelis, the likelihood that any substantial progress will come out of this meeting is so minimal, it’s not worth getting excited about – either positively or negatively. Those who would otherwise be excited about a peace agreement have little hope that this particular conference could result in peace – no matter how much Israel would be willing to concede.

Those who would otherwise passionately oppose any concessions see little “danger” or anything happening.

There is no faith in Abbas’ ability to deliver on any promise he makes, or on Bush’s ability to pressure him to do so – not to mention Olmert’s post-Lebanon-weakness making him unlikely to be able to enact the “painful concessions” he repeatedly says Israel is willing to make.

This is the reason that demonstrations – either pro- or anti- Annapolis – are hard to find.

Even the normally-crackling English-language blogosphere is fairly bereft of Annapolis-centered argument. When bloggers don’t think something is worth fighting over, you know you’re in trouble.

“For the first time, it looks like that the leaders attending a Middle East peace conference want – really, really want, truly, truly need this diplomatic process more than their people do,” wrote another Yediot commentator, Sima Kadmon. “They certainly believe in it more than the millions of Middle East residents who sat there yesterday skeptically, if not indifferently in front of the television. As far as the Israeli and Palestinians are concerned its another fancy festival for leaders who are happy and relieved to get away from the burning realities in their countries for a couple of days. It’s called escapism.”

Make no mistake – a clear majority of Israelis supported attending the conference, the polls showed. And they are pleased if the conference achieves the minimalist goals of solidifying U.S. standing in the region and presenting a united front against the threats from Iran and extremists.

But they know that the conference doesn’t mean that the residents of Sderot will get a break from Kassam missiles fired from Gaza, the residents of the north can stop holding their breath waiting for Lebanon to explode, or that continued attempts to attack and kill Israeli civilians by terrorist organizations from the West Bank will cease.

From these realities there is no escape.

Allison Kaplan Sommer is a writer living outside Tel Aviv. She is a former PJM editor.
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